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Bleckley Foundation works to honor the story of Wichita’s greatest military hero

Hugo Phan

The Bleckley Foundation is rebuilding a plane that could revive the story of Wichita’s greatest military hero.

The story of perhaps the greatest military hero Wichita ever produced has become a casualty of time.

Erwin Bleckley was one of just four aviators awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I. But other than Bleckley Street, a VFW Post named after him and a small display hidden on the grounds of the Dole VA Medical Center, he’s virtually forgotten in his hometown.

Hugo Phan
Doug Jacobs of The Bleckley Foundation.

Greg Zuercher said he and his friend, Doug Jacobs, can’t understand why.

“I've been following Erwin … for a quarter century or more because we're inspired by him, by what he did,” Zuercher said. “It always has, it always will inspire us.

“And Doug and I have thought for a number of … years, ‘How come nobody else has seen what we see?’ ”

Zuercher and Jacobs are working on a project that they hope will allow everyone to see.

They are board members of the Bleckley Foundation, which is restoring a vintage De Havilland DH-4 in a garage at 359 N. Mosley in Old Town. It’s the same model Bleckley was flying in when he and pilot Harold Goettler were killed in October 1918.

Zuercher said the foundation wants to honor Bleckley by creating a memorial that they hope to one day place inside Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport. It would include the refurbished plane, a statue of Bleckley and other historic artifacts from his life.

“All we are doing is taking care of unfinished business, business that needs to be taken care of,” Zuercher said. “And we're going to finish it with a lot of help from a lot … of people.”

That includes a crew of volunteers working to restore the plane, which was acquired by the foundation in 2020. It is the same make and model as the one Bleckley was flying in, and has the same squadron markings.

On this day, volunteers were using cotton swabs to apply adhesive to the joints of the plane, which is made of wood with a fabric skin.

“I think most of the guys down here, a lot of them are previous military members,” Jacobs said. “A lot of them have aviation experience based here in Wichita.

“They're all patriotic, they're volunteering; nobody's getting paid to do this project. And there's a passion for it. You can see when they come down to work, that they come in excited about doing something on this project.”

Bleckley was a teller at 4th National Bank when he joined the Kansas National Guard. His father was an executive at the bank.

Bleckley enlisted in June 1917, less than two months after the U.S. joined the war.

He trained as an artillery officer. But when he arrived in France, Zuercher said, the fledgling Army Air Service was looking for volunteers.

“And his parents weren’t around to say no,” Zuercher said.

Bleckley became an aerial observer. He flew in the back seat of the plane, mapping enemy positions and helping coordinate artillery fire.

In October 1918, his squadron was dispatched to help locate what became known as the Lost Battalion. Nearly 700 U.S. soldiers were surrounded in the Argonne Forest and were running out of supplies.

The Army Air Service decided, for the first time in history, to try to resupply troops from the air. They would drop 50 pound bags filled with food, medical supplies and ammunition.

Robert Laplander is an author and World War I historian.

“When they started doing the patrols to try to drop supplies … the weather was atrocious,” said Laplander, who wrote“Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America's Famous WW1 Epic.”

“So their patrols were hampered by fog, hampered by rain.

“The fact that these guys even got off the ground sometimes, it's just amazing.”

On Oct. 6, a Sunday, Bleckley’s plane made a first pass through a forest ravine to try to resupply the troops. It flew slowly below tree-top level in order to better locate the battalion. The plane was shredded by German gunfire.

But when they landed, Bleckley and Goettler borrowed another plane and said they planned to try again. They wanted to make another slow and low pass to draw enemy fire, which — by process of elimination — might help them figure out where the Lost Battalion was dug in.

“And the commander said, ‘If you go back, it's a suicide mission. You may not come back,’” Jacobs said. “And that's when Erwin went to his tent and wrote his will again before he went back on that second flight.

“They thought they probably had a good chance of not returning. But they were so dedicated to save these guys.”

According to the legend that has grown around the flight, Bleckley told his commanding officer as they departed, “We'll make the delivery or die in the attempt!"

Goettler was killed by enemy fire. Bleckley suffered fatal injuries when the plane crashed into the French countryside; his remains are buried nearby at an American military cemetery. He was 23 years old. The war would end five weeks later.

Hugo Phan
Greg Zuercher of The Bleckley Foundation.

Laplander said the decision by Bleckley and Goettler — known as “Dad” because he was 28 years old — to fly another mission doesn’t surprise him.

“All the Medal of Honor holders that I've spoken with, or that I've read about, have said the same thing: They didn’t do it to be heroes. They did it because it was what needed to be done at the time.

“Dad and Bleck did the same thing. They did what needed to be done. They went above and beyond.”

Bleckley’s Medal of Honor was awarded to his parents during a ceremony in 1923 at the Wichita Forum. His medal was donated in 1991 to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where it sits beside Goettler’s decoration.

Even though Bleckley died more than 100 years ago, Zuercher said it’s the way Bleckley lived that needs to be remembered.

“What gets me about Erwin is it’s what was bred into him that led him to volunteer for that second fatal flight,” he said. “The ethics and the values that were instilled to him by his parents and his pastor, and all the people that touched his life made him do what he did to volunteer for that second flight, which he knew there was a high likelihood he may not make it back alive.

“And so I reference the biblical verse .. I think it’s John 15:13: ‘(No) greater love has he than he who lays down his life for his friends.’

“To me that speaks of Erwin.”

2d Lt. Bleckley, with his pilot, 1st Lt. Harold E. Goettler, Air Service, left the airdrome late in the afternoon on their second trip to drop supplies to a battalion of the 77th Division, which had been cut off by the enemy in the Argonne Forest.

Having been subjected on the first trip to violent fire from the enemy, they attempted on the second trip to come still lower in order to get the packages even more precisely on the designated spot. In the course of his mission the plane was brought down by enemy rifle and machinegun fire from the ground, resulting in fatal wounds to 2d Lt. Bleckley, who died before he could be taken to a hospital.

In attempting and performing this mission 2d Lt. Bleckley showed the highest possible contempt of personal danger, devotion to duty, courage, and valor.
Medal of Honor citation for Lt. Erwin Bleckley

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.